Tolstoy With Comet, ‘Murder Ballad’ With Drinks: Review

At a milk-white pop-up theater called Klub Kazino in New York’s Meatpacking District, you can gulp borscht with a group of anxious Russians.

This is where “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” has settled after its debut run earlier this season from the adventurous group Ars Nova.

If you know your Russian heroes and heroines, you’ll recognize the show’s debt to “War and Peace,” not the usual source matter for a musical.

Dave Malloy is the talented composer, adapter and lyricist whose success here runs roughly in that order: a charming sung-through pop score including fiery anthems, dances and torchy ballads, all lushly orchestrated; an eye-filling environment that brings Moscow society onto your lap; and lyrics that range from inventive to banal.

In a hat tip to Hal Prince, “Natasha” even includes an opera parody within the show, a favorite Prince device.

Entering the ersatz swanky theater, you’re handed a shot of iced vodka (Stolichnaya is a sponsor). Mimi Lien’s romatic environmental set is flatteringly lit by Bradley King.

Hello, Stranger

Ramps and platforms for performers surround the tables, bars and banquettes where you’re seated, often with a stranger or two.

Your ticket, starting at $125, includes a good dinner (I liked the borscht and pierogi); more booze can be purchased from waiters in period costumes.

The show, drawn from late chapters in Tolstoy’s novel, tells the story of virginal Natasha (moon-faced Phillipa Soo), whose fiance Andrey (Blake DeLong) has gone off to battle.

While visiting her godmother Marya D (Grace McLean) and cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), Natasha falls under the spell of blond roue Anatole (co-played by Lucas Steele and much hair product). Andrey’s best friend Pierre (Malloy) is unhappily married to Anatole’s sister, slutty Helene (feline Amber Gray). A funny prologue spells all this out to us in a dizzy ditty that reminded me of the childhood song “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”

A haunting 11 o’clock number that accompanies the appearance of the comet leads to Pierre’s show-ending epiphany.

Frenetic Direction

Under Rachel Chavkin’s frenetic direction (with dances by Sam Pinkleton) the singing varies as wildly as the score. There are translucent, lovely performances by Ashford and by Gelsey Bell as Andre’s Plain Jane sister Mary.

But Malloy brays pitilessly through Pierre’s numbers, and the actors playing older characters are grating caricatures. Of course, all the actors wear head microphones and the voices, not to mention the excellent musical ensemble, are frequently amplified beyond toleration.

At Kazino, West 13th Street at Washington Street, Meatpacking District. Information: +1-877-704-2821; Rating: ***

‘Murder Ballad’

“Murder Ballad” is the enticing title of the musical at the staid old Union Square Theatre, which has been turned by Mark Wendland (set) and Ben Stanton (lights) into “King’s Club,” the downtown bar setting.

It’s a love-triangle-cum-soap-opera, with a story by Julia Jordan, danceable rock music by Juliana Nash and goopy lyrics by both of them.

Caissie Levy plays feral Sara, who dumps hot bartender Tom (the ubiquitous heart throb Will Swenson) for marriage and motherhood with solid, boring, professorial Michael (John Ellison Conlee). Until the King’s Club beckons again. Don’t go there, Sara!

Old story, but keep your eye on the Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a vodka-fueled Greek chorus in denim cut-offs and a peek--a-boo blouse. There’s an agenda lurking beneath her cold-blooded delivery of the show’s best lines and songs.

Levy has all the right equipment -- a fine belting soprano, the come-hither looks -- except the star quality that the role of Sara demands. Trip Cullman directs the intermissionless proceedings at breakneck speed. You can’t order a drink from the bar that runs through the middle of the space, but you’ll want one after.

At the Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St. Information: +1-800-982-2787; Rating: **

54 Below

Fifty-four Below has become essential after the demise of the Oak Room and Feinstein’s. It’s the place for Broadway stars past and present to get up close and personal with audiences and material. And the food has steadily improved since opening, making this grotto nightclub an inviting, sophisticated alternative to the stratospheric Cafe Carlyle.

Last week Laura Benanti dazzled the smart set with a song list that ranged from “I’m Old Fashioned” to a haunting reprise of “Unusual Way” from “Nine.”

Another highlight of the week was Sunday night’s 27th installment of Phil Geoffrey Bond’s “Sondheim Unplugged” series. The standout in a company of seasoned balladeers was Ann Morrison, the original Mary from 1981’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” and absent too long from local stages.

Singing the risque “Ah, But Underneath” from “Follies” with palpable sexy energy and the devastating “Now You Know” from “Merrily,” Morrison was charmingly flexible vocally and physically. Someone give this woman her own showcase.

54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. Information: +1-646-476-3551;

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeffrey Burke on books and James Clash on Jan Morris.

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